What to say about Ben Jonson? Well, for starters, his verse is flawed at best. He often rhymes in a contrived fashion, cheats the meter, and slaps references in haphazardly. He’s no master of English as Shakespeare proves himself time and time again. But Jonson is something here in these poems that so many poets aren’t, and that’s fun. In fact, so rare is fun in poetry that most people wrongly revile it. Even when Jonson fails he is still fun, as in The Forest when he first asks what he should sing about in an epode and then proceeds to completely strike out. Not to worry if you’re looking for good stuff, though, because the other two major sections, Epigrams and Underwoods, are far superior. And Jonson is far from a one-(failed)-trick pony.
I find Jonson to be both simple and plain spoken. Don’t misinterpret me here about this either, I mean both of those things in the best way. There is not always need of guile and subversion in the poetic arts, and as a matter of fact many ply those needlessly. Instead what you have is what’s on the paper without need of gloss or end notes or any of that. This book also includes his Discoveries, Or Explorata in which he shows off a much less wise version of Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard. Again, though, the key word is fun and even Franklin’s autobiography, for how brief it is, can get stuffy. For the less gracious reading I still like Jonson better than Donne, and of Shakespeare’s contemporaries I’d probably choose him although with recognition that Geoffrey Chaucer blows him away. It must also be said here that in the realm of obsequies, Jonson is without peer. Where Shakespeare liked to cut others down, Jonson built others up in his poetry and his compliments to those around them feel heartfelt and paid-for.